The Good, the Bad and the Brexit: UK’s Participation in European Space Programs Curtailed by EU Departure

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Although the United Kingdom’s (UK) “Brexit” departure from the European Union (EU) on Jan. 1 will not affect its membership status in the European Space Agency (ESA), the nation’s participation in a number of European space programs is either ending or being curtailed.

On Christmas Eve, the UK and EU announced an agreement in principle that will govern trade, security and political relations after Brexit. Under the agreement, the UK’s participation in the:

  • Galileo satellite navigation and European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS) program will end;
  • Copernicus Earth observation satellite program will continue, contingent upon a further agreement to be worked out next year; and
  • EU Space Surveillance and Tracking (EUSST) program will end, although the Britain will continue to receive data as a non-EU country.

UK membership in the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) and Mercator Ocean forecasting center are unaffected by Brexit.

Galileo and EGNOS

The end of UK participation in these programs will have varied impacts on busineses, government, academia and the general public.

“For the public and most UK, EU and other satellite navigation users, there should be no noticeable impact from 1 January 2021. For example, devices that currently use Galileo and EGNOS, such as smart phones, will continue to be able to do so,” the UK government said in an update on its website.

“UK businesses and organisations will continue to be able to use the freely available ‘open’ signal to develop products and services for consumers, and will be able to continue using the open position, navigation and timing services provided by Galileo and EGNOS,” the update added.

However, UK companies and organizations will lose the right to bid on contracts to build, operate and exploit Galileo and EGNOS. Current participants in the programs “may face difficulty carrying out and completing existing contracts,” the update said.

EU-based subsidies of UK companies can continue to bid on contracts for EU Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) programs under the agreement.

The UK government will not be able to use the Galileo system for defense or critical national infrastructure purposes. It will also not be able to access the system’s encrypted signals.

UK organizations and researchers will also lose access to EGNOS data.

“Any UK users of the EGNOS Data Access Service (EDAS) should make preparations for mitigating the loss of these services from 1 January 2021 as an agreement could not be reached with the EU on continued UK access,” the government update said.

Copernicus Earth Observation Program

The Galileo program is fully funded by the EU and carried out under contract by ESA. Hence the EU’s decision to limit participation in the program to member states and to exclude the UK.

However, the Copernicus program is a joint EU-ESA project that includes the participation of Eumetsat and the French space agency, CNES. NASA and NOAA have also been involved in the development and operation of the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite launched last month from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Under the agreement in principle, the UK will continue to participate in Copernicus for the duration of the EU’s 2021-27 budget, contingent upon a formal agreement expected to be reached in the first quarter of next year.

“This agreement is subject to finalisation of the EU Space Regulation. The UK will need to assess any potential exclusions applied to third country participants in the EU Space Regulation against the agreement reached to ensure it receives a fair balance of rights in return for an appropriate financial contribution to the programme. The UK reserves the right to reconsider participation following the finalisation of the EU Space Regulation,” the UK government said.

The agreement in principle includes the Copernicus Security Service, which uses satellite data from the program for border and maritime surveillance. The UK will also have full access to the Copernicus Emergency Management Service.

Access to Copernicus data will continue even if a participation agreement is not reached.

“Copernicus has a free and open data policy which means that the data produced by its satellites (Sentinels) and the Land, Marine, Climate Change and Atmosphere services will continue to be freely available to UK users,” the UK government said.

EUSST Program

Even though its participation in the program will end, the UK will continue to receive space surveillance and tracking data from EUSST.

“UK organisations will not be able to contribute to providing services to the EU Space Surveillance and Tracking, to participate in the scientific and technical groups to develop the programme further or be able to receive grant funding to pay for UK involvement,” the UK government said.

“The UK will continue to receive space, surveillance and tracking data from the US,” the government said.